Rich Reads: Historical Fiction Fit For A Queen
I have always loved a great story set in the past. Give me a high-powered historical plot, and I will keep turning those pages until my eyes cross. Kings or consuls, functionaries or janissaries, it doesn't matter, only that it pounds onward to the conclusion — volcano explosion, battle or market crash. It's literary dessert, and I devour every bite.
But if I'm really going to make a meal out of a book, to be nourished and satisfied by it, I crave something more — not just the general excitement of an ancient tale, but a specific time so perfectly evoked that I breathe the straw dust and smell the rough bread baking. I want the men and women who surround me to be complex and of their time, but never to let me forget that it might be me instead.
The books that follow have it all. Consider them a banquet: There's dessert, yes, but also a full and satisfying palate created by five masters of their craft. I savored them, and hope you will too.
History of a Pleasure Seeker
Richard Mason's History of a Pleasure Seeker is one of the most enjoyable books I've read all year. Set in belle epoque Amsterdam, it is filled with sensuous detail and vividly drawn characters. Its protagonist, Piet Barol, is a fascinating blend of manipulator and victim, hero and cad. Born to poverty, he uses his preternatural charm to secure himself a place as a tutor in one of the richest households in Amsterdam, and once there, sets about thoroughly sampling its many delights. Despite Piet's sometimes ruthless exploitation of others, I couldn't help rooting for his rags-to-riches dreams, all while basking in Mason's lush evocation of the period's art and architecture. In particular, Mason is a genius when it comes to describing music, making a drawing-room concert feel as high-stakes and vivid as a spy thriller. Do you, for instance, know what piano key is best for seducing aristocratic ladies? Piet Barol does. Read this witty and deeply pleasurable novel, and learn from a master.
Kathryn Harrison has always been interested in Russian history, particularly the doomed Romanovs. But it wasn't until she learned that a daughter of the notorious Rasputin survived to join a circus act in America that she finally found her story. The result is Enchantments, a lyrical book infused with Russian history and folklore, and furnished with a witty, sharp-eyed heroine in Masha, daughter of the "Mad Monk." It's not a period that I know well, but Harrison made me feel like I did, with potent descriptions of the famous Faberge eggs, the Siberian countryside and the wild coronation day of Tsar Nicholas and his new wife, Alexandra. As always, she has a gift for characterization, and I enjoyed the way she developed the touching and unlikely friendship between Masha and the tsarevich Alyosha. Most compelling of all to me was her portrait of Rasputin, who appears here as both man and legend, invincible magician-zealot as well as loving, ordinary father.
In 1785, before there were Superfund sites, there was Les Innocents, a decomposing mass-grave cemetery poisoning Paris. Its toxins were so bad that the attached church had to be shut down, and the whole neighborhood smelled like death. Into this disaster steps the hero of Andrew Miller's brilliant Pure, a humble engineer named Jean-Baptiste Baratte sent by Versailles to mop up. Along with exhuming generations of corpses, he must contend with various sinister forces: an unstable assistant, vexing women and a tinderbox political situation (the French revolution is, of course, just around the corner). Miller captures it all perfectly, from the grease on the sleeve of Baratte's pistachio-colored suit, to the bustle of an 18th-century Parisian street. I was astounded by the detail and research, which perfectly complemented the sharp prose, gripping story and moving characters. This is historical fiction at its best.
HHhH is a startling novel. For one thing, it's Laurent Binet's first, though you'd never know it, given the flawless, self-assured storytelling. On top of that, who would expect a postmodern exploration of the limits of historical fiction to be a page turner? But it is, absolutely, thanks to Binet's skill with his fascinating subject matter: the assassination of Himmler's brutal right-hand man, Reinhard Heydrich, by two Czechoslovakian resistance fighters, Jozef Gabcik and Jan Kubis. The book's main character, however, is really Binet himself, who makes a wonderfully nontraditional and unreliable narrator as he struggles to unearth the truth beneath layers of history. The result was awarded France's prestigious Prix Goncourt for a first novel, and is now freshly translated into English by Sam Taylor. If you are curious about the unusual title, it comes from a bit of German wordplay: Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich, or in English, Himmler's brain is called Heydrich.
Bring Up the Bodies
I am in awe of Hilary Mantel. The scope and skill of her incredible Wolf Hall — which charted the rise of the brilliant Thomas Cromwell against the backdrop of Henry VIII's break with the pope — was staggering. When I learned she was writing a sequel, I couldn't help but worry: How could any author sustain that sort of sheer, daring genius for a second book? Easily, it turns out. Bring Up the Bodies is not only as wonderful as Wolf Hall, it may even exceed it. Cromwell is just as brilliant, deft, wry and surprising as ever, navigating the treacherous waters of Anne Boleyn's short reign. In precise and beautiful prose Mantel captures a world: from petty politicking to theological debate, from the latest hat styles to Anne Boleyn's goggle-eyed dogs, she makes every moment feel fresh, engaging and pop-off-the-page vivid. Add to this her ingenious characterizations of Henry VIII, Anne and Cromwell himself, and you have one of the best books of the year.
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. There's a lot to love about historical fiction, not just heaving bodices and poised lances. It's a genre that gives flesh, heart and occasional humor to historical figures. It can be a good yarn that also makes you wonder: how much of this is true, long after you're done.
Madeline Miller has written historical fiction, including "The Song of Achilles," which won the Orange Prize for fiction. She's recommending a short list of summer reading for those who might want to wander in the past. Madeline Miller joins us from the studios of Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. Thanks very much for being with us.
MADELINE MILLER: Thank you so much for having me. It's nice to be here.
SIMON: I gather your love of historical fiction predates even when you started writing.
MILLER: Yes. It does. I mean, I love being immersed in another world where you're sort of learning all the details of what life was like for people in totally different cultures and different times.
SIMON: And to your mind, how does historical fiction do this in a way that non-fiction - well, I don't want to say doesn't, but does in a different way?
MILLER: In some sense I think you have more freedom when you're doing historical fiction because you can fully imagine a world that is likely instead of kind of the readers constantly thinking, well, did that really happen? Did that really happen?
SIMON: The "Song of Achilles" is based on "The Iliad," which is already a little apocryphal, if we can put it that way. Do you have a ratio you prefer of history to fiction?
MILLER: I like a good mix of both. I was really looking for books that had kind of the perfect balance. I mean, I think it's fun to really dig in and learn all the cool little details about, for instance, you know, what types of poisons people used on their arrows.
SIMON: Forgive me. You can't just say, and then he smeared some poison on the arrow?
MILLER: Well, you could but it's much more interesting to know where he got that poison, I think, and what it's going to do to you as opposed to the poison his neighbor might be using. But the best research is always invisible. You don't see the author hunched over their library books. You know, you really just completely enter the world.
SIMON: You're recommending some recent releases that people might want to read this summer. Let's begin with Andrew Miller's noteworthy "Pure."
MILLER: It is a terrific book set in 1785 Paris and it revolves around the cemetery and church Les Innocents, which was basically used as a mass gravesite and it had become pretty much a toxic dump. And Andrew Miller is brilliant about really bringing in the sights and the smells in the visceral sense.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Reading) In the church of Les Innocents, the light of a Paris morning falls in thin gray ropes from high windows but does little to disturb the building's permanent twilight. Pillars, black or nearly so, rise like the remnants of a petrified forest, their tops lost in canopies of shadow.
SIMON: And let me ask you about a book that's already gathered a lot of attention in France, and won a number of awards and that's Laurent Binet's - I don't know how to pronounce this. H-H-h-H.
MILLER: Yes. It's, speaking of a memorable title, HHhH is apparently an acronym for a phrase, a kind of a play on words from German and I'm going to butcher the pronunciation of this but it's "Himmlers Him heisst Heydrich" which means "Himmler's Brain is called Heydrich." And it's about the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich.
So it's a fascinating novel because the main character of the book is actually really a narrator, kind of exploring how much he can reconstruct. And it's sort of funny because that makes it sound very intellectual and that it's not a page turner, but the amazing thing is that he manages to do that and make it a complete page turner.
SIMON: Let me ask you finally about Richard Mason's "History of a Pleasure Seeker." This is set in Europe at the turn of the century.
MILLER: This is just such an enjoyable, enjoyable book. I mean, it's beautifully written and its main character, who's Piet Barol, is a extremely charming young man who is kind of, one, he has these rags-to-riches fantasies. He comes from a very, very modest background but he manages to kind of talk and charm his way into a very rich household where he serves as a tutor.
And it is very focused on sensual pleasures that are wonderfully described, particularly music.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Reading) Piet played the last bars of the nocturne very delicately and the piano's ringing made the air between them tingle. He did not silence it by lifting his foot from the pedal. When Jacobina said, play me something more modern, Mr. Barol, he was ready for her. His choice was the entr'acte to the third act of "Carmen," also an E flat major which had been useful in similar situations before. Its pure, beguiling melody rose from the embers of the nocturne and the rumbling arpeggios of the baseline showed his hands to advantage.
SIMON: I gather he also - not that it's a how-to book - but it was a single piano key that's supposed to be the key to love?
MILLER: That is right. Could be a good thing to know for the future. E flat major is the key of love.
SIMON: But only on the piano, not the kazoo?
MILLER: I think piano would probably work better.
SIMON: Madeline Miller is the author of "The Song of Achilles," and you can see her full list of recommended historical fiction at NPR Books, on npr.org. Thanks so much.
MILLER: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.